Polyominoes are all the rage. Or at least polyominoes up to a certain size are all the rage, which usually only includes monominoes, dominoes, trominoes, tetrominoes, and sometimes pentominoes and hexominoes.
But where most polyomino games boil down to “polyominoes plus something,” where the “plus something” is the substance of the game, Project L by Michal Mikeš, Adam Španěl, and Jan Soukal is all about the polyominoes, full stop. And the instant I’m done writing about it, I’m never typing the suffix -omino ever again.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. If Project L is all about the polyominoes, full stop, what does that mean? Are there no actions? No goals? Is this a game at all? Or is it merely a set of polyominoes, perhaps colorful and chunky and lovely to clink between your fingers, but devoid of any purpose whatsoever?
The answer is a bit of a mix. Yes, there are polyominoes, and yes, they’re entirely colorful and chunky and lovely to clink between your fingers. But what’s more, there are also cards, or perhaps they should be called tiles, which aren’t colorful but are chunky and quite lovely to run your fingers over. Your goal is to take these cards and fill them in with polyominoes.
There’s more to it than that, but not much more. Each turn provides three actions. Taking a card is an action. Putting a polyomino into a card is an action. Upgrading a polyomino — say, from a monomino to a domino — is an action. There’s also something called a “master action,” in which you add a polyomino to every card in your possession. If you have two cards, you’ve doubled the efficacy of that action! Three cards, tripled! Four cards, quadrupled! And because Project L is so short, it soon becomes a game of merciless efficiency. You will claim cards, fill them in, gain the points and polyominoes they spit out as rewards, and use as many master actions as possible in the process.
In other words, it’s a race.
One of the significant advantages of this simplicity is that Project L is almost instinctive. Everybody who isn’t a baby knows how to make shapes, and even a few above-average babies have mastered the basics of even that. Add a few years and “action efficiency” becomes similarly ingrained, at least for my six-year-old whose argument for why I should bring her a drink is that she’s “too cozy on the couch.” She’s a professional at Project L, by the way. Her ironclad arguments translate perfectly well to the realm of the spatial merging of shapes to make other shapes. It’s like packing luggage, but quick and sightly and you’ll never forget something essential only to remember it moments after the plane lifts off the runway. Put those two things together, shapes and action efficiency, and Project L becomes a perfect way to pass twenty minutes.
There is a hitch. I have yet to teach the game without my pupils asking about the other actions on the player aids. “What’s this ambassador action? Where are the ghost pieces?” I wish I could tell you, but neither of these are included in the base box. On one level, I understand the reasoning here. Project L is so lovingly crafted, with its clinky polyominoes and linen-printed rulebook and sturdy shape cards (with a disappointing slight color mismatch between cards and polyominoes), that it couldn’t have been cheap to produce. Slapping expansion reminders onto the player aids obviates the need to print extras later. Still, the absence of those components is hard to put out of mind. Project L is a pleasant game, even a smart game. But could it have been more? Should I have paid for the premium stuff? Was that how Project L was always meant to be played, but the extras were pared away so the game could be parceled out to consumers in smaller-priced chunks? Are we so comfortable with expansions that we don’t only accept but also expect our games to bear ghost limbs and missing appendages?
That isn’t a question I can answer on my own. Like I said, I haven’t played either of the expansions mentioned on the player aids and in the rulebook. All I know is that it strikes me as odd to be presented with a reminder of what I’m missing out on even as I begin to learn this brand new thing arrayed before me.
The good news is that those reminders are enticing for a reason. Project L is as simple as they come, but that’s precisely its appeal. It isn’t deep or even innovative. Instead, it presents itself in its starkest form. Shaping polyominoes is mesmerizing, so here is that process stripped of ornamentation or adornment. Not many games fulfill the promise of minimalism so handsomely or with such ease. Project L does so with a sense of purpose.
A complimentary copy was provided.